There’s a delicious and versatile vegan food hidden amongst the big hitters, like tofu and seitan, that just doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. Tempeh – pronounced “tem-pay” – is a hidden gem when it comes to plantbased eating. And it’s ready and waiting to shake up your meals, and your tastebuds.
Whilst it might look less than appealing uncooked, this nutritious food is a bit like Meryl Streep, minus the acclaim: Its range is incredible, and it can become almost anything you want it to be. Fancy vegan sloppy joes? A cruelty-free alternative to bacon? A buddha bowl full of healthy protein? Tempeh can play the part.
Here are commonly asked questions and interesting facts about tempeh. You’ll see just how Oscar-worthy this plantbased protein source is.
1. What is tempeh?
Originally an Indonesian dish, tempeh is made with soybeans. Its discovery is thought to date back at least a few centuries, and it’s particularly popular on the world’s most populated island: Java.
Tempeh is made by compressing and fermenting whole soybeans into a tofu-like block. Like tofu, it’s highly versatile and can be made into a myriad of dishes.
The beans are held together by ‘’mycelia,” which is a safe-to-eat fungus. But don’t let the fungus part put you off. The end result is a wonderfully nutty plantbased food that’s packed with protein. It’s the perfect staple in a vegetarian or vegan diet – or for anyone who wants to try more plantbased eating.
2. How is tempeh used?
The vegans and vegetarians among us are very used to tofu. But tempeh, on the other hand, can be as elusive to them as it is to meat eaters. When I began to write this article, a vegan myself, I realized just how little I know about tempeh, including what an ideal meat substitute it is.
To begin, tempeh’s nutty, mushroom-like texture provides a lot more texture than tofu. But just as tofu does, tempeh has the capacity to take on a multitude of flavors. As a result, it’s a great substitute for animal protein in recipes, when you want some “meaty” texture but without hurting any animals. Plus, tempeh can be served however you like: chopped up in salads, marinated and served as a cruelty-free alternative to steak, as “faux meatballs” with spaghetti, and more. You can imagine the possibilities!
3. How do I cook tempeh?
If you’re buying tempeh ready-prepared with added flavors or marinades, it’s usually a case of simply heating it and serving it however you like. Always follow the guidelines on the package, of course. Uncooked, un-prepared tempeh, however, should be cooked for at least 20 minutes, whether you’re boiling, grilling, frying, or steaming.
4. How do you make tempeh at home?
Making tempeh from scratch does take some preparation, but it’s such a tasty, healthy food – you’ll be rewarded for your effort. It’s also a great alternative if you’re getting tired of the vegan standby,tofu.
To start, you’ll need dry soybeans, apple cider vinegar, and some tempeh starter culture, also called Rhizopus fungi. This is available online and in many health food stores.
Here’s a video from Veganlovie that will guides you through the tempeh-making process:
Essentially, making tempeh involves soaking the soybeans overnight, then cooking them on medium heat. Just add the apple cider vinegar, and then you mix in the starter culture. Afterwards, the mixture is left to do its thing, which is to grow bacteria. (Again, try to focus on the delicious end product. I know, you’re probably thinking, “Now I see why tofu is so popular…”)
But if all of this overwhelms you, simply buy it ready-made from the grocery store!
5. Where can I buy tempeh?
Tempeh isn’t quite as readily available as tofu, but you can find it at Whole Foods and some regular grocery stores, as well as some online retailers. It’s usually available without any added flavors, ready to use in any dish, or you might find flavored varieties. In fact, the vegan food brand Tofurkey offers smoky maple “bacon” that is actually marinated strips of tempeh. My meat-eating friends say it tastes surprisingly like the real thing.
While it hasn’t made its breakthrough into the world of plantbased eating with quite as much vigor as it deserves, with the growing interest in plantbased eating, I anticipate we’ll start seeing more of this versatile plantbased protein.
6. What are the best vegan tempeh recipes?
There are thousands of tempeh recipes available online to inspire you to try this protein-packed food. Take a look at this tempeh teriyaki miso rice recipe, which brings beautiful spices, sticky fried tempeh, and refreshing fresh veggies together to create a hearty meal.
For something a little lighter, try this tempeh “chicken” salad by Epicurean Vegan, which uses tempeh as a meat substitute, along with vegan mayo. And if you’re looking for a side dish, you can turn to tempeh too. These tempeh fries from The Lusty Vegan look pretty amazing. Plus, they’re a great high-protein substitute for regular fries. (Not to mention, they’re sure to be a hit with carnivores and kids alike.)
7. Is tempeh healthy?
Tempeh is good for you. It contains about 170 calories, 9g of fiber, and 19g of protein per 100g. And while it does contain some fat – about 6g per 100g – it’s mostly healthy fats: polyunsaturated and monounsaturated.
Not only does tempeh pack a protein punch, it contains B vitamins and calcium, great for the nervous system and bones. Prebiotics also make an appearance in this soy-based food, which can reduce inflammation and improve digestive health.
While there’s still some debate about how much soy we should eat, tempeh has so many benefits, it seems a great addition to any diet. In fact, dietician Kathy McManus of Harvard-affiliated Brigham Hospital, says natural soy products can “replace red meat and other animal sources of protein [that are] higher in saturated fat.”
There’s also evidence that products containing soy, including tempeh, can protect the heart, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, improve insulin resistance, and help relieve menopausal hot flushes.
So, it seems that tempeh isn’t just a staple for vegetarians and vegans; meat eaters should be getting on board, too.
8. Is tempeh the same as tofu?
Both tempeh and tofu are made with soybeans, and both are sold in blocks. However, they differ in texture, flavor, and uses. Tofu, tempeh’s better-known and more popular cousin, is made from coagulated soy milk, which has been pressed into a block. It’s sold in a variety of forms, including silken tofu, which is often used for making sauces and cakes. Firm tofu can be sliced and diced and included in pretty much any savory dish. Tofu is particularly versatile because, as many people say – “It doesn’t really taste like anything.”
Tempeh, on the other hand, has a mushroom-like, nutty taste, as well as a lot more texture. Both of these soy proteins, however, can absorb a great deal of flavor when mixed with seasonings, soy sauce, and other ingredients. In fact, most tempeh and tofu recipes call for marination before cooking.
While tempeh might not be as commonly found in recipes as its smoother cousin, it beats tofu on the protein font. You get 19g of protein for every 100g of tempeh, compared to around 8g of protein per 100g of tofu.
9. What is tempeh fermentation?
The process of fermentation promotes the growth of good bacteria, which helps to preserve a food or beverage, as well as transform its flavor. We might not walk around thinking about this every day, but our bodies are actually full of bacteria!
Having healthy bacteria in your body is good for your digestion and many other biological processes, as the good bacteria can keep bad bacteria at bay. Many foods and drinks we consume on a regular basis are fermented, including tea, bread, chocolate, and even some vegan cheeses, such as Miyoko’s.
As mentioned earlier, adding Rhizopus fungi to soybeans encourages the growth of mycelium, which is the white part of tempeh that’s between the soybeans holding them together. The fact that tempeh is fermented means it’s easier to digest, and therefore easier for your body to absorb the nutrients from it.
10. Is tempeh gluten-free?
Tempeh that’s made with soybeans is completely gluten-free. As long as nothing with gluten is added to it when it’s cooked, tempeh makes a great addition to a gluten-free meal. It’s good to keep in mind, however, that a lot of marinades and sauces (like soy sauce) are not gluten-free.
In addition, some processed tempeh products, such as tempeh “bacon,” might contain gluten. So, be sure to look at the ingredients of pre-made tempeh products if you’re sensitive to gluten and other ingredients. Also, some variations of tempeh are made with grains, such as brown rice, flax, oats, and barley, which also contain gluten.
11. Is tempeh organic?
You can definitely find organic tempeh that’s made with organic soybeans and other organic ingredients. Not all soybeans are organic though. So, if you’re making tempeh from scratch, be sure you’re starting with certified organic soybeans. Look for the USDA Organic label on the package.
12. Is tempeh vegan?
Tempeh is suitable for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike. Whether you’re an ardent plantbased eater or not, it’s always a good idea to incorporate more whole plantbased foods into your diet. Afterall, plantbased foods are the triple win: good for your health, the welfare of animals, and the planet.
Now that you’re an expert on tempeh, how about some recipes? Here are some great ideas for cooking tempeh by vegan chef Caitlin Shoemaker. Caitlin shares
three easy ways to prepare this protein-packed food, including sticky BBQ tempeh, slow cooker tempeh pot “roast,” and tempeh “tuna” salad. Enjoy!